Tracing Darwin’s Footsteps

‘Get out, you English pirates!’ screams the sign at the port of Ushuaia, seemingly backing up President Kirchner’s bellicose declarations of recent weeks. With a ticket to sail down the Beagle Channel in one hand, I flash my passport at security with the other; my index finger carefully disguising my nationality.

I’m in Ushuaia, a city that chest-beatingly monopolises its end of the world status, as well as claiming itself to be the capital-in-exile of ‘Las Malvinas’.

Today I shall be re-tracing Darwin’s footsteps: sailing down a stretch of water that acquired its name from the very boat that made the same journey 180 years earlier.

On board I am immediately handed a brown, bulbous gourd with an incongruously ornate, thick silver straw poking out of a £2 coin sized hole in the top. ‘Mate, tómelo’ I am instructed. ‘Mate’ (pronounced ‘maté’) is similar to tea and is a cultural institution in the ‘Southern Cone’ countries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. The ritualistic method of drinking it is as embedded into daily life as the British afternoon cuppa. Argentinian kettles even have a specific ‘perfect mate temperature’ setting. Colloquially it is known as ‘Yerba’;  a fact that has caused equal consternation to UK customs officials and unrealised joy for UK students who had believed that their Argentinian exchange had just managed to smuggle 1kg of ‘Herba’ into the country and instead found themselves sitting in a circle passing around a mixture of dried leaves and hot water.

As the catamaran pulls out of the port and draws towards the Beagle Channel; it is easier to appreciate the scale of Tierra del Fuego: a retrospective view of Ushuaia emerges, with the city becoming a frosty jewel prominent in the crown of the mountains that frame it.

Tributaries of newly constructed ‘barrios’ etched into the forest link to form a cascade of multi-coloured wood and corrugated iron houses that flood down the central mountains and down to the Beagle Channel.

Deciduous trees, in tones of Northumberland moorland heather, brown matching that of my mate gourd and a deep red encroach upon the mountains; until they are beaten back by a rasping mix of wind and snow.  

As Ushuaia recedes, a harsh, desolate wilderness envelopes us. The wind ferociously gnashes at your face, your hands and the nape of your neck. The only animals that survive down here are the ones that are evolutionarily suited to do so: we see colonies of impossibly obese sea lions and comically absurd penguins; both of which are unexpectedly graceful in the water.

Yet even this obscure location, I realise that I’m never far from a reminder of home. Tierra del Fuego (‘Land of Fire’) was so named after the Yagán people that had eked out an existence here for eight millennia through their prodigious use of fires and penchant for rubbing seal fat on their bodies. Some anthropologists have recently theorised that women from my hometown of Newcastle are loosely descended from this tribe due to their common characteristic of adversity to clothing whilst braving extreme cold. Survival of the fittest, indeed. 


Photographs courtesy of the author.